The flight, originally planned as a 120-hour mission, was ended early due to forecasted severe icing and range restrictions. However, the airplane landed with enough JP-8 fuel on board for an additional 90 hours of flying, or enough for a total of six days of flight.
But the craft, built by Vanilla Aircraft of Falls Church, Virginia, landed safely with more than half its fuel still onboard, suggesting it is capable of setting additional records for powered flight in its weight and power class and could ultimately offer important new capabilities to ground forces and others.
Small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are an increasingly important means for military forces—especially small dismounted units—to bring extra communications or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the field.
Current designs, however, offer relatively limited range and flight endurance; additionally, their need for frequent refueling, specialized launch and recovery equipment, and regular maintenance often limit them to flying from fixed bases close to the front lines.
Vanilla’s propeller-driven VA001 is designed to carry a 30-pound payload at 15,000 feet for up to 10 days without refueling.
The VA001 started its historic flight on the morning of November 30, 2016 at New Mexico State University’s Unmanned Air Systems Flight Test Center near Las Cruces International Airport.
For nearly 56 hours, the plane flew at an altitude between 6,500 feet and 7,500 feet above sea level, averaging 57 knots before landing on the afternoon of December 2.
A representative from the National Aeronautic Association, the organization that verifies and tracks flight-related world records, certified the flight as achieving the world duration record for combustion-powered UAVs in the 50 kg-500 kg subclass (FAI Class U-1.c Group 1).
Moreover, the flight was the fourth-longest for any unmanned airplane and the 11th-longest for an airplane of any type (manned or unmanned, solar or fuel-powered).
“This record-breaking flight demonstrated the feasibility of designing a low-cost UAV able to take off from one side of a continent, fly to the other, perform its duties for a week, and come back, all on the same tank of fuel,” said Jean-Charles Ledé, DARPA program manager.
“This capability would help extend the footprint of small units by providing scalable, persistent UAV-based communications and ISR coverage without forward basing, thereby reducing personnel and operating costs. We’re very pleased with what the Vanilla team has accomplished.”
The flight was supported by the technology innovation investments of the Department of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) and DARPA-funded efforts through Naval Air System Command (NAVAIR 4.11 – Patuxent River).
“This effort represents tremendous and unprecedented coordination among civil, defense, academic, and private industry to bring a heretofore only imagined capability to reality,” said Vanilla Aircraft CEO Rear Adm. Timothy Heely (ret.).
The airplane carried 20 pounds of actual and simulated payload, flying at 6,500 to 7,500 feet above mean sea level (MSL), and was a further step for the VA001 towards demonstrating the system’s objective performance of carrying a 30-pound payload for 10 days at an altitude of 15,000 feet.
The payload included a NAVAIR-provided relay and operated continuously throughout the flight to demonstrate functionality out to the maximum range. The airplane also carried a NASA-provided multispectral imaging payload as a demonstration of Earth science and agricultural remote sensing.
“The VA001 has transformational potential, providing a scalable aerial system solution without increasing personnel or operating costs.”
“The ability of a low-cost platform to provide persistent surveillance, battlefield pattern of life, or aerial mesh network relay, in a responsive and robust manner, and without forward basing, does not currently exist,” said co-founder and chief engineer Neil Boertlein.
Vanilla Aircraft is also planning a groundbreaking role for the VA001 in commercial applications, especially in agriculture.
“The VA001 would be a cost-effective option for widespread and regular low-level surveying.”
“We could fill a wide cost and payload-capability market gap between small electric and large military unmanned aircraft, which is perfect for many commercial applications,” says co-founder and program manager Jeremy Novara.
Vanilla is currently exploring strategic partnerships and equity financing to expand into this market.
Vanilla Aircraft is a small business located in Falls Church, Virginia, focused on unmanned aircraft development.
Further payload integration and flight testing is currently underway with Vanilla’s customers, with initial operational demonstrations scheduled for 2017.